Monday, 20 April 2015

Linkage between Swa-Dharma & Self-Actualization

(Article was published in Journal of Business & Management, Volume 8, Number 1, June 2013, Department of Business Administration, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur.)

Performance of work in accordance to one’s intrinsic nature, talents, capacities and potentials leads to self-fulfillment and inner satisfaction. This fact has been emphasised by Krishna in Bhagavad-Gita as swa-dharma and also by Abraham Maslow in his self-actualization theory. Linkage between the two clarifies the concepts and highlights their relevance for business organisations. 


 In recent times there has been a conscious effort to find application of spirituality in workplace. India has a rich spiritual history and is the birth place of the earliest spiritual philosophies. Hindu spiritual philosophy has a vast literature from where many concepts and lessons can be drawn which have got immense relevance and importance for management of business enterprises. One such concept is swa-dharma about which Lord Krishna talks in one of the sacred book named “Bhagavad-Gita”. Self-actualization is another concept given by psychologist Abraham Maslow. This paper is about understanding swa-dharma in light of self-actualization theory and its relevance to business organization.


In Bhagavad-Gita, when Arjuna refuses to fight, Krishna laid immense stress on performing swa-dharma duties. Swa-dharma means work in accordance to one’s nature. (Aurobindo, 2010 p. 13 )

Krishna in Gita explained swa-dharma of a priest, warrior, businessman and a serviceman;

I created mankind in four classes,
Different in their qualities and actions
(Miller 1986, (4.13))
The actions of priests, warriors,
commoners and servants
are apportioned by qualities
 born of their intrinsic being.
(Miller 1986, (18.41))

Tranquillity, control, penance,
purity, patience and honesty,
knowledge, judgement, and piety
are intrinsic to the action of a priest.
(Miller 1986, (18.42))

Heroism, fiery energy, resolve,
skill, refusal to retreat in battle,
charity, and majesty in conduct are
intrinsic to the action of a warrior.
(Miller 1986, (18.43))

Farming, herding cattle, and commerce
are intrinsic to the action of a commoner;
action that is essentially service
is intrinsic to the servant.
(Miller 1986, (18.44))

Krishna further explained to Arjuna;  

Look to your duty;
 do not tremble before it;
 nothing is better for a warrior
than a battle of sacred duty.
(Miller 1986, (2.31))

The doors of heaven open
 for warriors who rejoice
to have a battle like this
thrust on them by chance.
(Miller 1986, (2.32))

If you fail to wage this war
of sacred duty,
you will abandon your own duty
and fame only to gain evil.
(Miller 1986, (2.33))

Even a man of knowledge behaves
 in accord with his own nature;
creatures all confirm to nature;
 what can one do to restrain them?
(Miller 1986, (3.33))


(Maslow 1987, p.168) described self-actualization as the full use and exploitation of talents, capacities, potentialities and the like.

 “It refers to people’s desire for self-fulfilment, namely the tendency for them to become actualised in what they are potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming." (Maslow 1987, p.64)

On self-actualizing individuals (Maslow 1987, p.168) noted; “Such people seem to be fulfilling themselves and to be doing the best that they are capable of doing. They are people who have developed or are developing to the full stature of which they are capable.”

 Swa-Dharma & Self-Actualization

Krishna’s emphasis on performing swa-dharma duties can be understood and realized in light of self-actualization theory. Maslow explained self-actualization as a need or desire to use and exploit one’s talent, capacities and potentialities.

On understanding Krishna’s discourse on swa-dharma in context of self-actualization theory, it can be clearly realized that why Krishna was emphasising Arjuna to perform his swa-dharma duties i.e. to fulfil his self-actualizing drive.

 When the voice to actualize ones potentials is not heard, it leads to dissatisfaction, uneasiness and frustration in life. (Maslow 1998 p.13-14) noted; “What happens then to the one who denies this unique responsibility? Who doesn’t listen to his call-note? Or who can’t hear at all anymore? Here we can certainly talk about intrinsic guilt, or intrinsic unsuitability, like a dog trying to walk on his hind legs, or a poet trying to be a good businessman, or a businessman trying to be a poet. It just doesn’t fit; it doesn’t suit; it doesn’t belong. One must respond to one’s fate or one’s destiny or pay a heavy price. One must yield to it; one must surrender to it. One must permit one’s self to be chosen”.

(Maslow 1999, p.194) further noted; “Part of this core (of human nature) are certain preferences and yearnings that may be considered to be intrinsic, biologically based values, even through weak ones. All the basic needs fall into this category and so do all the inborn capacities and talents of the individual. I do not say these are “oughts” and “moral imperatives,” at least not in the old, external sense. I say only that they are intrinsic to human nature and that furthermore their denial and frustration make for psychopathology and therefore for evil, for though not synonymous, pathology and evil certainly overlap.”

 In Gita, Krishna also warned Arjuna;

Your own duty done imperfectly is
better than another man’s done well.
It is better to die in one’s own duty;
 another man’s duty is perilous.
(Miller 1986, (3.35))

Better to do one’s own duty imperfectly
then to do another man’s well;

doing action intrinsic to his being,

a man avoids guilt.

(Miller 1986, (18.47))

Krishna advised Arjuna not to give up his swa-dharma (self-actualizing work) under any circumstances;

 Arjuna,a man should not
relinquish action he is born to,
even if it flawed;
all undertakings are
marred by a flaw,
 as fire is obscured by smoke.”
(Miller 1986, (18.48))

(Maslow 1987, p. 64) noted; “Musicians must make music, artists must paint, poets must write, if they are to be ultimately at peace with themselves. What humans can be they must be. They must be true to their own nature. This need we may call Self-Actualization.”

Krishna also warns Arjuna that his determination of not fighting is futile since by his nature he will be compelled to do so;  

Your resolve is futile
if a sense of individuality
makes you think, - “I shall not fight” –
nature will compel you to.
(Miller 1986, (18.59))

You are bound by your own action,
intrinsic to your being Arjuna;
 even against your will you must do
what delusion now makes you refuse.
(Miller 1986, (18.60))

Further Krishna tells Arjuna that by following his swa-dharma a person can reach the state of self-realization. He stated (Miller 1986);

Each one achieves success
By focusing on his own action.
(Miller 1986, (18.45))

Here word success means self-realization.

Maslow(1999, p. 173-174) also had a similar insight; “If the various extant religions may be taken as expressions of human aspiration, i.e., what people would like to become if only they could, then we can see here too a validation of the affirmation that all people yearn toward self-actualization or tend toward it. This is so because our description of the actual characteristics of self-actualizing people parallels at many points the ideals urged by the religions, e.g., the transcendence of self, the fusion of the true, the good and the beautiful, contribution to others, wisdom, honesty, and naturalness, the transcendence of selfish and personal motivations, the giving up of “lower” desires in favour of “higher” ones, increased friendliness, and kindness, the easy differentiation between ends (tranquillity, serenity, peace) and means (money, power, status), the decrease of hostility, cruelty and destructiveness.”
Relevance to Business Organization

The stress laid down by both Maslow and Krishna on self-actualizing work is due to the fact that it leads one towards fulfilment, completeness, well being, self-transcendence and self-realization.

(Maslow 1971, p.44) noted; Self-actualization means experiencing fully, vividly, selflessly, with full concentration and total absorption. It means experiencing without the self-consciousness. At this moment of experiencing, the person is wholly and fully human. This is self-actualizing moment. This is the moment when the self is actualizing itself.”                                                           

It is during these self-actualizing moments that a person experiences a state which Maslow called peak experience. (Maslow 1987,p. 206) states; “For one thing, not only the world but also he himself becomes more a unity, more integrated, and self-consistent. This is another way of saying that he becomes more completely himself, idiosyncratic, unique. And since he is so, he can be more easily expressive and spontaneous without effort. All his powers then come together in their most efficient integration and coordination, organized and coordinated much more perfectly than usual. Everything then can be done with unusual ease and lack of effort. Inhibition, doubt, control, self-criticism, diminish toward a zero point and he becomes the spontaneous, coordinated, efficient organism, functioning like an animal without conflict or split, without hesitation or doubt, in a great flow of power that is so peculiarly effortless, that it may become like play, masterful, virtuso-like. In such a moment, his powers are at their height and he may be startled (afterwards) by his unsuspected skill, confidence, creativeness, perceptiveness and virtuosity of performance. It is all so easy that it can be enjoyed and laughed with. Things can be dared that would be impossible at other times. To put it simply, he becomes more whole and unified, more unique and idiosyncratic, more alive and spontaneous, more perfectly expressive and uninhibited, more effortless and powerful, more daring and courageous (leaving fears and doubts behind), more ego-transcending and self-forgetful.”

It is this state of being that is of immense relevance to business organization. People who are doing their natural intrinsic work are more productive and satisfied.

(Fleming 2007,p.43) noted; “Socrates expressed the same sentiments in Plato’s Republic more than 24 centuries ago: We are not all alike; there are diversities of natures among us which are adapted to different occupations...We must infer that all things are produced more plentifully and easily and of a better quality when one man does one thing which is natural to him and does it at the right time, and leaves other things.” 

In Bhagavad-Gita, it appears that Krishna’s concern was not whether Arjuna will fight or not. His concern was, with what attitude Arjuna will fight. Whether he will fight in ignorance, with fear, hatred and anger or with knowledge, wisdom and without anger. He laid great stress on performance of work in accordance to one’s intrinsic nature i.e. swa-dharma and stated that it can lead one to the state of self-realization. He also warns of ill-effects of not performing one’s own swa-dharma. Abraham Maslow also stressed on similar aspects in his self-actualization theory. Understanding of swa-dharma concept in light of self-actualization theory confirms our faith in ancient spiritual wisdom and makes us realize its relevance in present modern times. It is as relevant to people working in business organizations as it was for Arjuna in the battlefield of Kurushetra.


Aurobindo, Sri (2010). Gita Ki Bhumika. Pondicherry: Shri Aurobindo Ashram. 

Fleming H. John & Jim Asplund (2007). Human Sigma. New York: Gallup Press 

Maslow, A. (1999). Toward a psychology of being 3d ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Maslow, A. (1987). Motivation and personality.  India: Dorling Kindersley Publishing Inc.

Maslow, A. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature . New York: Viking Press.

Maslow, A. (1994). Religion, values and peak experiences. New York: Viking Press.

Maslow, A. (1998). Maslow on Management. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Miller, Barbara Stoler (1986). The Bhagavad-Gita. New York: Bantam Books.

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